The public competition is open to any interested party who feels that its theatrical output is of any relevance. The applications to take part in the festival’s most recent edition were submitted by 38 theatre ensembles from 14 countries, including Argentina, Greece, Belgium, Austria, Romania, Bulgaria, Visegrad Four countries, Finland, Spain, etc. Besides, there were eight ensembles from Slovakia, including all puppet theatres in the country plus four independent troupes such as the group of students from the Academy of Performing Arts (VŠMU). This overview only pertains to First Impulse as the total list of applicants was much longer. This long list of ensembles and performances served as the basis for the resulting qualitative sample comprising 13 shows for children of all ages (ranging from toddlers to teenagers) from six European countries (Slovakia, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Poland, Belarus, Italy) and Latin America (Brazil). Newcomers among applicants included ensembles from Romania, Belgium and Argentina. We have met with ensembles that apply for our festival regularly with the same repertoire as in the past. We have also noticed an interesting trend that some theatrical troupes only stage their productions at festivals. Our experience that it is impossible to tell an Argentinean fairy tale from a Polish one unless there is a spoken narrative involved keeps repeating itself.
The pool of First Impulse applicants showed a clear difference between smaller private troupes and large ensembles from regional or state-run theatres. The divergence was so glaring it raised the question of whether the professional platforms and the so-called independent troupes or two-member teams can or should even be compared on the same stage… The variety lay mostly in complexity of stage design, use of lighting, the role of music in the body of performance, and the level of artistic rendering. These inequalities tend to be abysmal, mostly due to different material conditions and interpretation possibilities of one/two member teams…

As far as soloists go, we were impressed particularly by Rotative Performing Arts, a group led by Spanish actor Barnabe Rubio that specialises in cabaret pieces featuring artistic finger- and handwork. This thespian is able to deliver masterful numbers that would be great as an attraction but rather in clubs, for audiences without age specification. Generally speaking, there was a relative abundance of cabaret performances among foreign applicants featuring puppets or masks that would fit perfectly to clubs or streets, which corresponds to the notorious truth about primarily entertaining nature of the puppet theatre (and also testifies to applicants’ insufficient knowledge of the Bábkarská Bystrica festival as our programme is relatively clear about our preferred direction…).

This year’s final selection is seemingly dominated by shadow theatres and productions for toddlers. A number of possibly strong contestants arose from Sztuka szuka malucha [Art Seeks the Toddler], a unique festival for toddlers held in Poznań, Poland. Unfortunately, we didn’t choose anything from the plethora of performances as we felt that they were rather repetitious and formally copying already known methods without much progress. A pleasant surprise for us was Moment!, a tender trash-punk production for toddlers and their parents rendered by three students of the Academy of Performing Arts’ Theatre Faculty who captured the notion of performance for toddlers in a very unique way, drumming on tins… Unfortunately, they were unable to come to the festival on account of their busy schedule. Another production for toddlers to have been knocked out from this year’s programme due to organisational reasons is Wind by the Madam Bach theatre company from Denmark, which remained on our roster until the very final stages. It would be certainly interesting to compare it to Aero by Slovakia’s Odivo troupe as both shows explored a similar theme. The strongest contestant among domestic applicants was the Bratislava Puppet Theatre that will present four shows in total (two for children plus two for adults). The entries by Slovak ensembles offered quite diverse pieces, ranging from an educational concert to small-form experiments by VŠMU Puppetry Department’s graduates to traditional fairy-tale productions staged by regional theatres.

The purpose of our festival’s programme has been repeatedly emphasised since 2010: to present non-commercial theatre for all age categories, i.e. from toddlers all the way to teenagers, offering theatrical productions that reach outside the box of biased and deep-rooted stereotypes of theatre for children. What does it mean? The attribute “non-commercial” is clear: it refers to performances that cannot return a profit or their production is technically so challenging that it is difficult to sell. But what do “biased and deep-rooted stereotypes” entail? Everybody knows more or less what to imagine, but how does one put a finger on it? We don’t have enough space for a detailed analysis of how these phenomena are manifested in the output of puppet theatres (while it should definitely be interesting). The festival’s programme accentuates the creative lines in productions for children that help theatres avoid the clichés.

The first line: a triplet of productions for toddlers. The very fact that these performances are designed for the tiniest of all target groups excludes commerciality right away. All three present previously unseen elements of creative work. The Brazilian Garden is magical because of its very subject, bringing the element of exotic colourfulness to our festival. It builds on the time-tested approach to communication with children while engaging them in a very tender way. The Tactilees is an adventure about the sense of touch, using elements of the so-called snoezelen therapy that remains relatively unknown in our country and requires direct and active tactile participation on the part of children. On the other hand, Aero by the Odivo troupe is a non-acting and non-interactive performance (as long as we see interaction strictly as concrete actions involving children), which makes it stand out from the line. Nevertheless, the show provokes a mental and visual interaction between images created on the stage and the audience.

The second line: a couple of shadow shows. They represent the best demonstrations of this branch of puppet theatre; while it may be quite underused in Slovakia, many Western ensembles specialise in it. Ranking high among ensembles with a long and respectable tradition is L’Assina sull’Isola from Italy, which will present its latest production, Bzz, a small opera featuring live music. Tutu, a show by a Dutch troupe Lichtbende, is an experimental but technically perfect performance. Besides live music, the show’s harmonic effect is accentuated by the lighting that uses special spotlights from the 19th century. This production has already charmed audiences on several continents.

The third line: a quartet of performances by large professional theatres that are run by municipal or regional self-governments. All four shows have been inspired by well-known literary models, a dramaturgical practice relatively often used by puppet theatres. All selected productions reflect this approach as their impact rests primarily in the final librettistic and directorial adaptation. The creative team inventively uses all the possibilities of puppetry in order to convey the message. This is particularly true of the frequently (one may almost say “notoriously”) adapted fairy tale Tall, Wide and Sharp-Eye from the repertoire of the Ostrava-based puppet theatre or of the fairy tale by Wilhelm Busch rendered by Gomel State Puppet Theatre from Belarus. Both shows appeal to the audience especially thanks to their emotional directing and spectacular stage design. A dramatization of Janusz Korczak’s novel, King Matthew, by the Banialuka puppet theatre from Poland and Adventura Humana staged by the Bratislava Puppet Theatre round up the third line as examples of quality productions dealing with themes that speak volumes to older children. While the former conveys an expressive anti-war message in a traditional thespian ambience, the latter renders an untraditional adaptation of a fairy-tale story in the form of a site-specific discussion (the play takes place in a school gym) with teenagers on the issue of bullying at school.

The programme profile of the children’s leg of the festival complement shows we like to refer to as shows of the first contact. These productions are based on the charm of puppets and puppeteer’s personality such as Loutkoviště [Puppetground], the latest show by a natural born comedian Víťa Marčík. They are honest pieces of puppetry that are perfect for the first social contact with a puppet theatre for anybody who either has not had a chance to come to a theatre or will not see it repeated for some time. This category of shows also includes Gerda, a production by students of the Department of Puppetry of the Academy of Performing Arts’ Theatre Faculty, which perfectly serves as students’ first contact with our festival as it is important for us to present the results and forms of students’ artistic quests to established professionals.

A few words instead of a conclusion

If anyone has been dedicated to theatre for children for more than 30 years, it is impossible to ignore two new realities that can be perceived in our cultural environment in the past several years: firstly, an increasing number of cultural events for families with children; secondly, an ever-growing number of new troupes that specialise in theatricals for children.

It seems that cultural events for families with children have never been as abundant in Slovakia as they are today. The overall number of various festivals increased significantly over the past several years. There is some new festival in almost every corner of Slovakia, for instance Rozprávková Modra [Fairy-Tale Modra], Virvar [Hubbub] in Košice, Slnečný festival [Sunny Festival] in Senec, Cirkul´art in Bratislava, Hviezdne noci [Starry Nights] in Bytča, the Amplión [Tannoy] festival of cabaret and street theatre in Banská Štiavnica, Mičinský pitvor [Mičiná Hallway] in Horná Mičiná near Banská Bystrica and so on. We have only named seven of the newcomers but there seem to be several times more of them, as almost every village has one or another form of summer festivities or at least its own original fair. While scouting the newly opened cultural events this summer, I have discovered over 30 one- to two-member theatre groups circulating these events with a fairy-tale repertoire played by puppets. I suspect there must be many more around, but there seems to be no relevant overview of these private groups’ existence and output. Another interesting fact is that these cultural events and festivals as well as these groups are divided along the religious lines (for instance, those who are invited to catholic events seldom appear elsewhere and so on). If there were fragments of professional theatre troupes appearing at these fairs and festivals, their repertoire was identical to that of private groups: usually a fairy tale that may be performed by one or two thespians and does not require much space, lighting and sometimes even music or sound effects.

Developing cultural traditions may sound like good news. The regions are awakening and seeking their place through culture as well. Apparently, we have never been so well off if we have enough money in municipal coffers to organise these events. The problem is that the organisers present mostly bedtime stories we all remember from our childhood. Most of them are technically modest productions – short, colourful and jolly. Those in fact are their main features. Indeed, all these events are primarily and exclusively about entertainment. Present-day popular entertainment is more like it, as they serve as pastime for the most general public and thus they are some sort of a mirror of the Slovak mainstream in the field of entertainment for children. What is important to me is that Slovak professional “stone” theatres do not fall within cultural managers’ scope of interest when organising this kind of “popular culture” events (perhaps a rare exception is Teatro Tatro, which sporadically appears at some of these events). The newest wave of these events reflects not only cultural demands of the organisers but also taste preferences of the spectators. Last but not least, it is the result of education and simple media environment in which we have been living for several decades now. It seems that these quasi professional puppet productions, as opposed to traditional puppetry, have brought us back to the notorious assertion that puppet theatre should be content with being lowbrow entertainment.

It feels very bizarre that while generations of our ancestors called for professionalization and cultivation of our cultural environment, we must observe the same nowadays.

After decades of existence, the distorted system of secondary and higher art education begins to produce its first negative practical results. The number of acting graduates from conservatories, VŠMU Puppetry Department in Bratislava or Academy of Arts in Banská Bystrica is a hundred times higher than the potential number of jobs in professional theatres or on the art market in general, let alone the fact that the wages in professional theatres are already rather low. Most masters of arts are employed in elementary art schools or conservatories, but they simultaneously teach at the university in order to secure a fair income. Our education system is failing to take into account that art requires talent and that true talent is a rare gift. The schools that prepare art professionals are filled to the brim as there are 10-12 students admitted to each class; now try to multiply it by the number of conservatories and art academies in Slovakia. It is only logical that upon graduation, these aspiring artists face quite bleak chances of winning recognition in their trade (and many of them do not care to, either). So, they use any opportunity they can. But those dozens of emerging private theatre groups merely reflect the social conditions and mechanisms in which we have found ourselves. And I am not even going to discuss other issues concerning our culture’s future, such as why aspiring actors without any experience or expertise are educating their successors, thus lowering the general criteria applied to measuring the quality of artistic thinking…

The greatest paradox – which characterises professional art in general and professional puppet theatre in particular – is that the emergence of new thespian groups is rarely the symbol of young art graduates’ energy and desire to make art in a new a different way but rather a modern simulacrum: they earn their living in their own preferred way while at the same time they are being sucked into the mainstream of shabby entertainment industry serving the needs of endless popular amusement.

Iveta Škripková, director of the festival